Monday, April 10, 2006

The Mother. mother. For Vera and all the mothers and daughters

You have to understand that my Mother is imaginary. That I’m telling the truth here, but the truth is that of a 13 year-old girl. The woman I am never knew her small “m” mother. Never knew the person.

And yet, she is the person whose undercurrents and attributes have ghosted my life.

I’m moved to write this entry by recent talk with other daughters, who, although their mothers are alive or not so long gone from the world, are also living out their mother’s unlived lives – consciously or not.

This is some of what I remember:

Walking in winter with my mother. Just the two of us with Mike, our dog, and the neighbor’s dog, Toby. Feet crunching over the snow that covered the golf course across the road from our house. It’s well below freezing and we are going to walk alongside the creek. The sky is unblemished winter blue.

At the creek, the dogs run out on the ice and Toby falls through. He’s scrambling not to be drawn under by the current, his front legs uselessly pawing at the ice. My mother doesn’t hesitate. She crashes through the thin ice, into the freezing water, up to her hips and pulls the dog out. “Go home,” she says to me. And she cradles Toby in her arms and heads home has fast as her frozen legs and feet will carry her.

Our neighbor suffers a stroke. My mother goes, every day to help her do her exercises, to clean her house, to cook.

When my father is out of work, my mother whispers, “Now try not to bother your father. He’s feeling bad. It’s hard on a man’s pride to be out of work.” My mother gets a job to help out. And I wonder (because I know that I am a bad, selfish girl)
why my father has to be so protected when my mother is doing everything.

My mother gives up things for us. My father tells us this. “Your mother didn’t get a new coat this year so you could have those music lessons.” My mother takes the smallest portion of the best treats at dinner.

When my mother is 12, her father dies. She leaves school and goes to work. She is the eldest, like me, and she has to take care of everyone. Someone has to earn.

Understand, my mother loved to laugh. She sang – in her beautiful voice. She dressed with all the style a small budget allowed and could cut a mean rug. She drew people to our house like a light draws moths.

And I remember her as being sad.

Perception is everything. It isn’t necessarily anywhere near the truth of another person, let alone a parent, but the perception is what shapes us.

I wanted to be like her. She was my hero, my role model. She was everything I could never be. She was the yard-stick by which I measured every step.

Before she died, only days before, her last words to me were, “Take care of your brother and father.” I’d have promised her anything. I was thirteen.

So my life, like the lives of so many women, became a contest between trying to be my mother, and trying not to be my mother.

To be the “good woman” or to be…your own woman. That is the question.

I would try to be both. I didn’t understand that I could be my own woman and good, in a different way. Saint or sinner was how I secretly thought of it – in spite of intellectual cover-ups of astonishing dexterity.

When I married in my thirties, I wanted to be safe. I wanted, this time, to be a good partner and not a selfish, neurotic, bitchy unpredictable girl. I found a good man who loved me for myself, with a minimum of adjustment. And we were happy for a long time.

That’s the cover version.

The other version is that I began to give parts of myself up – not that he necessarily asked me to. Nothing so big you’d notice outwardly and so slowly that I didn’t know it myself. People admired how much autonomy we had in our relationship. But little by little, when the choice was what I needed as opposed to what I thought the relationship needed, I started handing out pieces of myself. No matter how “different” I thought we were, my husband and me, the myth of my Mother, the Good Woman, was working it’s way in. I thought of my needs as “selfish.” I felt guilty if I gave in to them. My need for freedom, my need to connect intensely with other people, my need to alone, my need to work obsessively on what captured my attention. My need for change. I found middle-ground, but not enough. Finally, not enough.

As I was trying to be the person I’d mythologized, I missed my mother’s shadow. My mother had ambitions and one hell of a fighting spirit. After her first job, when she received a lukewarm reference – she charged into the office, pulled out letterhead and wrote the reference she deserved – slapped it down for the boss to sign. That was also my mother. Her sacrifices made her sad and deprived her of chances to do the other things she longed to do. I sensed in my mother a terrible yearning for freedom and growth beyond the domestic life. When I was little, and she told me about when she was a girl – how hard it was – I would ache with the weight of it. Some part of me thought, Not me. It isn’t going to be me.

Understand that my mother is a fiction. My fiction. My myth. But perception is what we grow on.

I wonder who she really was – Vera, my mother. I wonder what she thinks of her daughter’s life. And I think I’d be ready to meet her now. So I hope that it happens when the time comes. And that finally, now that the myths have dissolved, we might be able to talk. Woman to woman. Like friends.